Eritreans living in the Netherlands are issuing a summons against the European Union for aid which they say will involve the use of forced labour in their home country.
The EU is providing €20 million to the Eritrean government under the ‘EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa for road reconstruction.
But the petitioners say that the projects will involve the use conscripts from the country’s National Service – a system condemned by the UN as a form of enslavement.
You can read the full Letter-of-Summons-EU-Emergency-Trust-Fund-for-Africa here.
National Service traps young men and women in an indefinite system of conscription.
Conscripts have been held for 20 years and more.
The Eritrean government introduced compulsory national service in 1995. By law, every high school finalist undertakes 18 months of national service, which include six months of military training.
When relations deteriorated with neighbouring Ethiopia following the bitter 1998-2000 border war, the national service was extended indefinitely and this has never been revoked. As the UN Human Right Council found: “Very few Eritreans are ever released from their military service obligations.”
EU accepts conscript labour will be involved
The EU acknowledges in its project plan that national service members will be deployed on the project.
The EU has provided limited information about their Eritrean project funding, which is described as reinforcing the reconciliation agreement signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018. The road reconstruction will help by “reconnecting the two countries and providing Ethiopia access to Eritrea’s ports” which the EU describes as “a key priority.”
“The specific objective is to improve transport connectivity for commercial trade along the arterial roads between Massawa and the Ethiopian border,” according to the project document.
The EU argues that the use of National Service conscripts will be “a subject of heightened dialogue.”
The case is being brought by the Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans, which was founded by Eritrean exiles living in the Netherlands.
Emiel Jurjens, the solicitor who is bringing the case for the Foundation says that various arms of the Eritrean government are involved in the EU’s project.
The EU’s Eritrean project plans describe its stakeholders as including the Eritrean Government and the Red Sea Trading Corporation, which is owned by the ruling party, the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice.
Mr Jurjens says the road reconstruction will involve the use of conscripts serving in the Eritrean National Service.
“This EU project was little advertised,” says Mr Jurjens. “It slipped below the radar.” Mr Jurjens believes this case is precedent setting: “as far as I know it is the first of its kind.”
The condition of the conscripts was described by the UN Human Rights Commission in graphic detail: “Thousands of conscripts are subjected to forced labour that effectively abuses, exploits and enslaves them for years. Women conscripts are at extreme risk of sexual violence during national service.”
The involvement of the EU in projects developed in association with the Eritrean government, which is among the most repressive in Africa, would have been bad enough.
That the Europeans are planning to provide aid funding to support programmes that use enforced or conscripted labour is described as unconscionable.
Mulueberhan Temelso, Director of the Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans, says: “Every person in National Service is trapped in extremely harsh conditions.
There are more than 365 secret and hidden prisons across the country and the European Union is well aware of this.
The EU must immediately stop aid to the country. It is totally unacceptable for EU to encourage the use of slave labour.”
Volating European human right commitments
The use of forced labour or enslaved labour in an EU funded project would violate a range of European undertakings. Article Five of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights states that: “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.”
Professor Mirjam van Reisen, of the University of Tilburg, and an expert on Eritrea and Human Trafficking, said: “It is shocking that the EU would allow the use of forced labour in any of the programmes that it funds – this is totally unacceptable.
National Service is the main reason Eritreans are fleeing their country and supporting forced labour will only create more refugees. This programme is wrong – it must be stopped at once.”